Why More Foreign Writers Aren't Published in America
Over at Publishing Perspectives, Emily Williams continues her series of articles on scouting with one about why more books aren’t published in English translation. Her focus is more on “large scale houses that compete for high profile submissions” than on the small, indie, nonprofits like Open Letter and Dalkey Archive and Melville House and New Directions that do do a number of books in translation, making this piece an interesting complement to a lot of the things we’ve written about here. (And thanks for the shout-out, Emily!)
Right from the start she hits one the bleak cycle of translations in today’s book market:
A vicious cycle develops where the difficulty of placing books in the US makes it less likely foreign publishers and agents will invest in packaging their authors to submit here, which makes it harder for US editors to develop an understanding of foreign markets and what authors might be the best match for their audience. This, in turn, arguably contributes to the scattershot nature of publishing translations here and the chances that the books that do get published will find success.
And if you want to catch a glimpse of the differences in editorial practices between a small press and a large one, check this out:
There is no comparably mature translation market for any one language in the English speaking world, and the fact that books coming into the American market come from many different countries and languages makes it harder for editors here to develop the expertise in what any market has to offer, and which books from that country have the best shot of appealing to American readers. The books that are sold for translation here are more likely to come through the handful of US agents with close ties to one region or another, who are themselves usually working through professional relationships with particular agents or publishers abroad. What books by foreign authors that end up crossing an American editor’s desk, then, depends in no small part on chance and good connections. Rachel Kahan, a Senior Editor at Putnam who reads fluently in Spanish, admits, “If they don’t have a US agent and they aren’t being conspicuously packaged for the US sale, which is the case a lot of the time, I tend to luck into things.”
There are some instances where the absence of an American agent offers a savvy editor the advantage of speed, but in most cases American representation makes things easier.
“Not all editors in the business have relationships with their colleagues overseas or with foreign agents, so if there’s an American on board, I think in some cases it lends the project a little more visibility,” said Kahan. “And also if there’s an American agent there’s usually a translation or a partial translation of the book itself. That [US] subagent will have packaged it in a way that’s the most accessible and maximizes its potential for the American market. Whereas when it’s been an author that I’ve discovered, then I’m doing all of that work myself. [I’m] the one saying, ‘You really have to trust me here, I think this is going to work, I’m staking my reputation on it.’”
The article—which you should really read in its entirety—ends on a much more positive note than it begins, although for a literary elitist like myself, it’s a bit bittersweet . . . Anyway, talking about how to make a book in translation sell:
Kahan emphatically agrees, citing authors Marek Halter, the French-speaking author of religious historical fiction whose books she acquired while working at Crown, and Luis Miguel Rocha, the Portuguese author of the thrillers The Last Pope and The Holy Bullet, which she publishes at Putnam.
“Both speak reasonably good English and are very charismatic and very interesting,” says Kahan, “and in both cases they came to New York, they met our sales people, they were involved in the publicity of the book. And, yes, that made a really big difference.”
These success stories have given Kahan the impetus to continue to look for great authors from abroad. “I know it’s very often said, Americans don’t read books in translation, and publishers aren’t interested in foreign writers, and that is not the case,” she asserts. “We’re not buying as much in other languages as our counterparts overseas are, but we are definitely buying them and there are certainly ones who break out. The first book I bought by Marek Halter [Sarah] has sold over 200,000 copies. They do work. They’re harder to make work, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s this idea that American publishers just throw up a wall and don’t take a chance on writers who don’t write in English, and I don’t think that’s the case.”